Experimental metallers Dir En Grey are Japan’s very own Into Eternity—their music is eclectic and hard to classify into any one sub-genre—except that they have the added fangirl-ish oomph of flashy appearances, thanks to their visual-kei roots. Being the eighth full-length studio album in the band’s illustrious career thus far, Dum Spiro Spero (which is Latin for “While I breathe, I hope”) is yet another scintillating record to add to the quintet’s already impressive and extremely collectible portfolio.
If there’s one thing you gotta love about modern Japanese musicians—whether they play pop, rock or metal—it has got to be their iconic brand of clean singing. The ever eccentric Kyo in particular, is one helluva gifted singer; he has always had a knack for soaring and heart-wrenching vocal hooks, which he shows off with great ease and artistic pride as usual on this new record, and they are such that a melody-loving metalhead cannot help but wonder why there can’t be more Western metal vocalists taking a leaf out of his book. Standout tracks featuring such surreal and beautiful clean singing would include tracks like “Different Sense”, ““Yokusou Ni Dreambox” Aruiwa Seijuku No Rinen To Tsumetai Ame”, “Lotus”, “Diabolos”, and “Hageshisa To, Kono Mune No Naka De Karamitsuita Shakunetsu No Yami” (a track which also appears on Saw 3D’s OST).
Apart from the emotional clean singing of unearthly range, Kyo once again balances this crooning side of him well enough with the right dose of guttural death growls (most clearly heard at the start of the second single of the album, “Different Sense”), cacophonous shrieks, bloodcurdling screams and even creepy whispers; all of which only serve to remind any old or even recent Dir En Grey fans why they got into the band in the first place. Perhaps such natural ease at and inclination towards striking such a stark contrast between the two opposite ends of the human vocal spectrum can be obtained as only a kind of pre-birth winning lottery ticket—you know, that much coveted prize we call “talent”.
Bassist Toshiya really deserves applause for actually being significant in the overall sound-scape of Dir En Grey’s music as well. In a genre as overpowering and loud as metal, the bass line often gets relegated to the back burner and merely takes on a monotonous supporting role while the melody line gets all the limelight. However, the Japanese are well known for coming up with good harmonies, and Toshiya sure lives up to this expectation, as his throbbing bass lines complement the technical guitar riffs well by adding a groovy kind of bad-ass attitude to the overall feel of the music. Without him, the guitar melodies of Kaoru and Die would most certainly sound naked and hollow.
Having abandoned their shocking image of the past in favor of a more toned down appearance now (read: they don’t look like freaky girls or Marilyn Manson anymore), it seems ironic though that Dir En Grey’s music has gotten more bizarre instead. While they started out as a Japanese visual-kei hard rock band with progressive influences, they hardly sound anything close to that now. Take the band’s latest music video for “Different Sense” for instance: Kyo sports black, short hair (you might be thinking “What?!”) that is only slightly styled at the top, and his clothes actually do not resemble an anime cosplayer’s costume for once, and yet the vokills that spew forth from his amazing gap a few seconds later totally shatters that brief false impression of new-found tameness and is part of a brutal deathcore intro which eventually softens down into a mid-tempo alternative metal emo anthem, instead of the goth/alternative rock song an unsuspecting viewer might have been expecting based on the band’s newly acquired modest street-wear attire. One thing that has stayed constant, though, is Kyo still being obsessed with dark lyrical themes revolving around the carnal side of humanity, such as our wildest sexual fantasies and fundamentally violent nature. This juxtaposes sharply against the benign look of the album cover, which makes for a damn good surprise to unsuspecting first-time listeners.
Artwork-wise, Dir En Grey have once again opted for a clean and simple look, only that this time around they have chosen an oriental background rather than cryptic and foreign-looking ones such as those found on 2000’s “Macabre” and 2008’s “Uroboros”, both of which had featured a piece of Russian artwork and a black metal-ish cover, respectively. The calm greenness of the bamboo forest coupled with the humble-looking brown text of the band and album names (in the style of 2007’s “The Marrow Of A Bone”) just simply bring to mind the exotic timelessness of ancient Japanese bamboo art, giving this album a strong first impression of East Asian cultural exposure that has the added bonus of being easy on the eyes, too.
Even with all possible praise worded out and heaped onto this new Dir En Grey masterpiece, there is still one thing left that I cannot stress upon enough (and I know it’s gonna sound cheesy and cliché): The only obstacle Dir En Grey have to best are themselves, and they are only going to get better and better from here on. From the eerie, isolated dissonance of the piano-cum-noise-sampling introduction to the omnipresence of the assuring bass guitar chugging throughout, Deathspell Omega moments like on ““Yokusou Ni Dreambox” Aruiwa Seijuku No Rinen To Tsumetai Ame” to Suicide Silence moments like on “Decayed Crow”, and throwing in the highly contrasting yet (somehow) apt injections of infectious clean vocals as well, Dir En Grey is one intense metal asylum patient paddling a brand of hair-raising sonic art packed so full of diversity and avant-garde goodness that they keep you coming back for more.
Indeed, while I breathe, I most certainly feel hope—hope for similar magnum opuses in the future that is.